Can a distinction be made in school libraries between book censorship and sensible curation?
Some books most people would agree are clearly inappropriate – especially for children. On the other hand, giving in to moral panic and succumbing to our more censorial instincts can deprive young people of vital information, not to mention the ability to access many classic literary touchstones.
Consider Florida, where 40 percent of all book bans nationwide took place during the last school year. In July, the state legislature passed HB 1069, revising processes for parental objections to educational materials. The new law allows parents to unliterally ban books by performatively shocking the conscience of school board members through public readings of sexually charged paragraphs. The provision reads:
“Parents shall have the right to read passages from any material that is subject to an objection. If the school board denies a parent the right to read passages due to content that meets the requirements under sub-sub-subparagraph b.(I), the school district shall discontinue the use of the material.”
The language provides a specific roadmap for concerned parents, allowing them to attend school board meetings and read the most explicit passages aloud. If board members order them to halt a reading, the book in question is automatically removed.
According to some accounts, readers are advised by groups, which have targeted books like Slaughterhouse Five and The Kite Runner, that: “You want to get shut down. Only read the dirtiest bits that we give to you.”
Context is everything, of course, and most of us will recognize that books with passages that could be considered objectionable in a vacuum may also convey higher meaning or represent great literary achievements. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, Ulysses, The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye – all contain racy passages and have been subject to book bans at one point or another.
An opposite danger is ignoring the rights of concerned parents. In 2022, the Montgomery County School Board introduced a series of “LGBTQ+-inclusive texts” as part of its required curriculum for children as young as four years old. These include works focusing on gender transition and same-sex infatuation, even sexual fetish topics like leather and drag queens – subjects that are obviously outside a four-year-old’s understanding. Parents were outraged for good reason.
We should all be able to agree that foisting gender ideology discussions on children barely able to tie their shoes is inappropriate. Yet, the board refused to allow parents to opt-out, violating their sincerely held religious beliefs in the process.
In another example of misguided curation policy, the commissioners of Llano County, Texas, responded to complaints about book removals by debating the closure of the Llano County Library System entirely.
In Arkansas, the legislature passed a bill making it a crime for librarians to provide purportedly “harmful” material to minors, but the bill defined this broadly as any book with a description of “nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse.” A judge enjoined the law, pointing out that – as written – any reading material deemed harmful for a five-year-old minor would also be deemed harmful for a 17-year-old minor, despite obvious differences between the two in maturity and comprehension of adult themes and issues. The Supreme Court addressed this concern in Virginia v. American Bookseller’s Association, Inc., suggesting that an interpretation of the term “harmful to minors” that includes speech protected for older minors would raise First Amendment concerns.
Instead of legislation and lawsuits addressing fringe debates, what is most needed in the context of book curation for school-aged minors is common sense. As a nation, we should seek to strike a balance between running roughshod over the rights of parents and throwing out material of literary value or useful for personal development just because it may include a few arguably inappropriate (for some) passages.
As the Supreme Court suggests, teenagers have a right to access reading materials consistent with their age-level and understanding. And, from a public policy perspective, they should also be able to learn about the adult world they are about to enter.
Parents, meanwhile, have a right to direct the upbringing of their children (especially young children) in accordance with their own values, and should absolutely have a say in what they read.
As in all things, moderation – not knee-jerk censorship – is key.